Gregory Hines, talented star of "Duke Ellington's Sophisticated Ladies," the hit revue at the Lunt-Fontanne Theater here, is attracting attention not only as a singer/actor/comedian, but as jazz tap dancer par excellence. He cuts a thoroughly ingratiating figure on stage, doing some of the most amazing tap dancing to be seen in any show in a long while.
And Gregory isn't surprised that the show which didn't quite make it in Philadelphia and Washington is now so popular.
Hines attributes this sudden success to the massive changes that took place before "Ladies" ever hit the Big Apple.
"We were completely depressed in Washington with the reviews -- the show wasn't making it. I think the key differences was when Michael Smuin took over as director in Washington. He worked us every day, between shows, matinee days, after the show. He worked us as much as he could by the laws of Equity. Smuin took out the numbers that weren't working, and he took the dialogue out altogether. He imbued us with the confidence that we could do it."
Now all that has changed. The show is certainly entertaining, and, without the encumbering dialogue, Duke Ellington's wonderful music really stands out. But it's the first-rate hoofing, by Hines and practically every other member of the cast, that really makes the show go.
Hines started tap dancing and performing with his brother Maurice at about age three, later adding his father to the group, working lounges and shows for about ten years. When tap dancing became less popular, the act shifted to more singing, plus some jazz dancing. So Gregory didn't tap for about eight years. Later he dropped out of the act, moved to California, and got involved in a jazz rock band, singing and playing guitar.
"Then my brother said to me, come back to New York. I was a real romantic. I had about $40 and my guitar. He said, I just got this role in the national company of 'Pippin,' and I'm subleting this East Side one bedroom, so you can stay here and I'll take care of you.
"I thought, well, great! S o I moved back. I get back here and my uncle picks me up and drives me over to this slumm on the East Side. I get upstairs and the one bedroom turned out to be a kitchen and a hallway and a little room with one bed where he took the mattress off and I slept on the box spring! I said, 'Why aren't you with "Pippin"? He said, 'Oh, I quit that job. I didn't like the director.' I said, 'What about the money?' He said, 'Well, how much youm got?' I said, '40 bucks.' He said, 'Great, let's go eat!'"
But Maurice told Gregory about an audition the next day for "The Last Minstrel Show," which he went to and got the role, and from there he got into "Eubie," and, says Gregory with a sly grin, "The rest of course is history!"
Hines started to tap dance again in "The Last Minstrel Show," and then met up with his dance teacher, Henry LeTang, who had taught him how to tap as a child. LeTang helped him get a part in "Eubie," which featured Gregory and Maurice in a hot dance number. Gregory's first big show was "Eubie," which he played in Philadelphia and afterwards in New York for about a year. Later, getting away from the dancing for a bit, he played Scrooge in a black version of "A Christmas Carol" called "Comin' Up Town," about which he reminisces:
"I loved playing Scrooge. I really got into it. As soon as I got the role, I immediately cut my daughter's allowance back from a dollar fifty to 75 cents! . . . you, know, to try to get into the part. Needless to say she wasn't too upset when the play closed after three weeks!"
From there he went on to play in "Black Broadway," a revue that featured tap dancer Honi Coles and the dance team, the Copasetics.
Henry LeTang, the tap choreographer for "Sophisticated Ladies," has been teaching and choreographing in New York as long as anyone cares to remember, right through the dry spell in tap dancing, working with the likes of Lena Horne , Larry Storch, and Betty Hutton. He has even taught tap dancing to Lee Marvin, Sugar Ray Robinson, and Jack Albertson.
Gregory can't speak highly enough of LeTang:
"He's a master, he really is. Henry is one of those people like cole Porter. He can create a step that becomes a standard."
At that very moment, LeTang himself opens the door and comes in, greets his prize student warmly, and says,
"He learns quickly. He picks your brains before you even get the idea out. I hate to talk about him like this you know," he smiles like an indulgent father , "but he has a great capacity for ad libbing, which means I can give him eight bars and he'll do sixteen. He's not limited.
"He also raises cain with that ballad he sings in the show, 'Something to Live For' . . . look out Eckstine, look out Sammy Davis, look out Tony Bennett!"
LeTang feels that there is a big revival of jazz going on in shows, and especially jazz tap dancing.
"We started that with 'Eubie,' then here comes this one and that one . . ."
Henry is pleased that at last the great tap dancers who are still alive are able to make a living again.
"My argument is that tap is the American dance. That's the way I feel about it. For it to slip as it did . . . it shouldn't have happened."
And, if "Sophisticated Ladies" and Gregory Hines have anything to say about it, it won't happen again.